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For the week of June 11 - 17, 2003


Water outlook 
slightly better

Late, fast spring runoff 
changes drought dynamic

Express Staff Writer

Warm temperatures at the end of May washed hopes of drought improvement out of the Wood River Valley, but the quick runoff will feed more of the vast agricultural demand to the south.

"We gained about three weeks of irrigation time," said Big Wood Canal Company manager Lynn Harmon, speaking about the water levels at Magic Reservoir, which is the main collector of Big Wood water. "The faster it comes off, the more we receive."

As it happened, this year’s snowmelt had less time to seep into the water table or be gathered in collection ponds. As earlier concerns about another drought year are being reconfirmed, the dynamics of drought conditions in the region are changing somewhat.

In April, Harmon told the Mountain Express he expected about 35 to 45 days of water this summer. But "the whole southern part of the state has seen improvement," said Harmon. "We should see total irrigation water at Magic at 70 days."

That capacity is close to half the volume necessary to count as a normal season, which is 150 days.

Drought concerns were never far away this season. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed a drought emergency declaration for Blaine County four days before the Big Wood River crested May 31.

The declaration allows irrigators to expedite changes in the direction of their water plan for the season, although it doesn’t permit them to increase their intake of water.

So far only one application from the Carey area is expected at the Idaho Department of Water Resources office in Twin Falls. As the irrigation season progresses, however, the state will probably see more applicants, said Harmon.

Suggesting concerns about water quality, IDWR also announced May 22 that groundwater levels show declines and cautioned that aesthetic pond owners "may be in violation of state water law if they do not have an approved water right that authorizes the impoundment of water."

As counter-intuitive as it seems even for legal irrigators with surface or ground water rights, the overflow of the Big Wood River spells more water trouble.

"Anytime you impound water you will see evaporation," said Harmon.

But the bigger concern is the impact of pond water that is too warm or contaminated seeping back into the water table or draining to the river.

Residential water users with rights in the county are permitted by state law to irrigate only a half acre of land with as much as 13,000 gallons per day.

"If you have (water) rights you can choose to exercise them in any way you want," said Alpine Aquatics water manager, Kevin Lenane, who is managing an automated waterfall project in Deer Creek. "I recommend that people ‘pond’ responsibly. That water is like money the state is giving away."

"There is an important vegetative component to the greenway," he added. "If people remove cottonwoods, allow fertilizers, sediments and nutrients to drain into the river, degradation is going to occur. "

Ideally, following peak accumulation, snow in the mountains will dribble gradually out of the snow pack, said Natural Resource Conservation Service water supply specialist Ron Abramovich. "But, when the temperature in the mountains starts pushing 80 (degrees Fahrenheit), it will go down almost as quick as it came in. (When Mother Nature) gives you extremes, streams respond accordingly."

"If the water had run off more slowly (as expected), we may have seen 25 percent of what we received," said Harmon. "In the next four or five days we will see the end of the peak runoff for the season, but we will still get some water from natural spring flows."

Since all water rights are managed by a priority date the most senior right holders (those with the oldest rights) get water first.

"Some late rights (irrigators) will stay on a little longer," said Harmon. But, he adds there have already been cuts like 1894 rights in the Little Wood River drainage that feeds Richfield and joins the Big Wood River below Magic Reservoir.

"Water rights in Idaho are not designed to be nice," said Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman Dick Larsen. "Water rights dependant industries like fish hatcheries or bottle water companies know the oldest rights are a guarantee."


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